The Ready Position

The Ready Position

Flats-fishing success often depends on an angler's posture and poise before the cast.

  • By: Chico Fernandez
  • Photography by: Chico Fernandez
Assume the Ready Position

The most frustrating part of fishing the saltwater flats with a fly rod, especially for someone new to this part of our sport, is the casting. I find that most new fly-casters, and even some intermediates, don’t like to practice away from the water; they feel it’s too much work. And it is a bit of work, at the beginning, but once we bypass that entry-level stage with saltwater tackle, say to the intermediate and up levels, casting is no work at all. Rather, it’s pure pleasure. Personally, I love to cast.

When anglers reach this point of casting enjoyment and can make a long cast with good loop control and minimal effort, they are still often frustrated by yet another aspect of the cast in saltwater situations—getting the fly and fly line in motion from a stand-still.

Fly-fishing on the flats for bonefish, redfish, tarpon and the like is very different from other types of fly-fishing in that you are not casting until you see a fish. You are mostly hunting, while holding the fly rod in one hand and the fly between the index finger and thumb of your other hand.

In most other fishing, it doesn’t matter if you’re a bit awkward or slow getting the fly in motion, as long as you produce a decent loop when you start to feel the weight of the line and can send the fly a decent distance. But in sight-casting, at a moment’s notice, you need to go from holding the fly to placing the fly in front of a moving fish. And it’s best done by false-casting with fluid, smooth motions, yet quickly and accurately. It’s not hard to learn; the problem is that almost no one ever practices this ready position, or “fast draw” as I like to call it.

The reason it’s so hard to get the fly and fly line in motion from our ready position is that the first 10 feet or so past your fly is composed of your leader, which weighs nothing, and the next five feet or so is the thin front taper of the weight-forward fly line, which also weighs very little. For practical purposes, the first 15 feet or so of your rigging weighs next to nothing.

When you try to get your line in motion you can’t feel any weight or load on your rod during the first couple of false-casts. Unless you’re a good caster, the fact that you are not feeling any weight tends to throw off your casting stroke, ruining your attempt at a good presentation.

Before we go through an explanation on how to get the line in motion and get enough line out of the tip of the rod to start feeling the weight of the line, let’s first make sure you have the right combination of rod, fly line and leader.

Sight-Casting Outfits
To sight-cast in the salt, you need a rod that, while not soft, is still soft enough so that with your skill level you can feel the fly line bend or load the rod with between 25 and 65 feet of line out (typical sight-casting range). This may be shorter in backwaters for redfish or snook, where muddy conditions may reduce visibility and only offer short, quick casts that day; or it may be longer on a calm day while bonefishing, when the fish do not allow you to get close.

If in reading this you decide that maybe your rod is too stiff and you are going to look for a new rod, go to a fly shop where you can cast several models. Arrive at the shop with the line you plan to fish on the rod, say an 8-weight, already rigged with a 10-foot leader, and put on a fly. On an 8-weight, I suggest a streamer around size 1/0 and preferably with a bright color that you can see in the air and against the grass. Cut off the hook at the top of the bend so it does not snag.

Unless you are buying a specialized outfit, choose a 9-foot rod in four pieces. Nine is close to an ideal length and four-piece rods are probably the top rods today, with the exception of specialized one-piece saltwater rods.

Now test the rods for loop control and “fly turn-over” at 20, 30, 40, 50 feet, more if you like. Also test how well you can make a backhand cast—an important cast on the flats. You’ll find the stiffer the rod, the harder is to make a good backcast.

You do not need to bother with trying to see how far you can cast. But if you must, and we men must, do that at the end, when you’ve already made a decision. Otherwise, you’ll end up choosing the rod with which you cast the farthest, which is usually one of the stiffer rods and may not load well on a 30-foot cast.

Lines and Leaders
For sight-casting in the tropical salt, most fly-line manufacturers have two types of saltwater lines: the often-called “bonefish taper,” usually with an average head length around 45 to 50 feet; and the “redfish taper,” with a shorter head around 30 to 36 feet or so, depending on the manufacturer.

For most of my sight-casting, I prefer the bonefish-type lines because they usually produce the most delicate presentation, even on a long cast. But often, when faced with low visibility or off-color waters, where a shorter cast is the order of the day, I’ll opt for the redfish taper because it allows you to load the rod with less line in the air. Besides, this line will easily turn over a heavy fly or popper, even on a windy day.

That translucent few feet at the end of the fly line, the leader, is the last link to a good flats presentation. The longer it is, the better the presentation, but the harder it is to cast and the easier the wind dominates it. The shorter it is, the easier it is to cast and to turn over a fly in a strong wind; but it lands harder in front of a fish. It’s all a compromise, as usual.

Nine feet is a good leader length for most sight-casting. For more advanced anglers, I recommend a 9- or 10-foot leader for windy days or off-color waters. But for most of my bonefish and permit fishing, I’m mostly in the 11- to 12-foot range.

A thought on reels: As you know, fly reels don’t help your casting. However, I do feel that a heavy reel will make your outfit bottom-heavy and unbalanced; it can be distracting. I like as light a reel as will do the job.

Getting Ready
Now, with all the proper tackle, let’s get ready to fish. Step up on the front deck of the flats boat and strip out almost as much line as you can cast. Stretch your line, and then make a false-cast of 20 to 40 feet to get in tune with your cast. Next, make a couple medium to long casts. Do this within the span of a few minutes—the guide wants you fishing very soon.

Between you and your guide (or friend on the poling platform) decide how far you need to cast depending on the present conditions. Say it’s windy, a little choppy but the water is clear and you decide that you can see fish up to 50 feet or so. Reel in all the excess line, cast the whole 50 feet and retrieve it, piling the line on the boat’s deck; if it’s really windy, strip the fly line into the cockpit. The line should be “stacked” so that when it shoots on the cast it will come off the top of the pile to prevent tangles as much as possible.

The amount of line you have outside the rod’s tiptop is very important. It must not be too short or you won’t be able to feel the rod load on the first couple of false-casts; but not too long that it drags on the water as the boat is poled forward. My personal preference is having the whole leader and a rod-length of fly line outside of the rod tip. This gives me about 10 feet of leader and 9 or 10 feet of fly line, so one false-cast and I’ve got a 20-foot cast for starters—not bad.

To complete the ready position, hold the fly by the bend of the hook, making sure you are not covering the point—you don’t want to hook your thumb or index finger!

As the boat moves forward, don’t hold the rod in front of you or the leader and fly line will get under the boat and you won’t be ready to cast when the time comes. Instead, hold the rod on the downwind side. And don’t have so much line out of the tip of the rod that it’s dragging on the water. If you do, sooner or later it will catch grass or tangle in one of the many mangrove shoots sticking a few inches out of the water. Worse yet, the guide can catch your line as he swings the push-pole and pull the fly right out of your fingers.

Do not hold the tippet instead of the fly, as I see in too many photos; it may look cool, but that only lasts until a mangrove shoot or the push-pole pulls on the line and runs the tippet through your hand and finally buries the fly in your thumb.

Adjusting to the Cast
When you finally see a fish in casting range, make a smooth, not hurried, backcast and let the fly line pull the fly from your fingers. Don’t throw the fly! Leave the hand that was holding the fly where it is; don’t move it.

As you come forward with the rod, bring the rod to the fly-holding hand and let the rod activate the fly line. Now that you’re holding the line, you can start using your double haul…which I’m sure you’ve been practicing. Don’t look at the rod—it’s doing its job, so you do yours and keep your eyes on the fish.

One more thing: on your last cast, as you come forward with the rod, don’t immediately drop the rod tip, okay? Cast just as you have been doing, send the line forward and then, as the line travels toward the fish and the loop has been formed, you can start lowering the rod. No rush, you’ve got time.

To get all of this right, you need to practice the “fast draw.” And not just downwind, please; practice it upwind and from your backcast; make short as well as long casts with a full leader and a fly. Rig your outfit as if you were going fishing (except cut off the bend and point of the hook). Then, when you’re on the water, the cast comes naturally and you can concentrate on the fish, as you should.

Chico Fernandez is the author of Fly-Fishing for Bonefish; order it at Book Store. Chico lives in Miami and spends many days fishing the South Florida flats and backcountry.